EAST HELENA — In the wake of a sexual assault allegation against East Helena’s former police chief, the city brought in an outside investigator to look into his conduct in the workplace. Now, that investigator has put together a report, painting a picture of questionable and improper behavior and suggesting city leaders didn’t provide enough oversight.
MTN made a public information request for the investigator’s findings on former chief William Harrington, which the city released Thursday. Details related to the accusation of sexual assault were redacted for privacy reasons, but the 18-page report also pointed to numerous concerns about his other alleged actions as police chief.
The investigation was conducted by Jordan Crosby, an attorney with the firm Ugrin Alexander Zadick in Great Falls. According to her report, she spoke to three patrol officers, a former officer and a reserve officer, along with other city leaders.
East Helena leaders called for outside investigators in March, after Harrington was placed on paid administrative leave over the assault claim. Harrington resigned from the East Helena Police Department on March 5, just as Crosby’s investigation began.
In her report, Crosby said Harrington’s nearly two-year tenure appeared to worsen many of the issues facing the EHPD. She quoted employees who said Harrington installed cameras within the office and would comment on their actions, indicating he had apparently been monitoring them by video. She also said it appeared he was keeping police personnel files separate from the city human resources department – against city policy.
Crosby argued these actions were part of a pattern of isolating EHPD employees from other city employees, law enforcement agencies and each other.
“A clear lack of trust exists between many in the department and other City employees, and it is important that this be addressed going forward, or the department will continue to experience low morale,” she said.
Crosby also said city payroll records showed Harrington reported working an average of more than 81 hours a week in 2020 – allowing him to earn nearly $135,000, which she said would be far more than a typical police chief for a department this size. At the same time, she said officers raised concerns about having to work long hours, including significant overtime.
According to the report, city employees and administrators believed the long hours were due to open positions in the department not being filled, and Harrington had said he had not received any qualified applicants. However, Crosby said it was later reported that Harrington had been storing a number of applications for those positions in his desk, but still not taking any action to make a hire.
The report argues East Helena city leaders didn’t do enough oversight over Harrington or EHPD. Crosby said several current and former employees reported they had brought concerns about Harrington’s actions to Mayor James Schell, but that it appears much of that behavior continued.
In the report, Crosby said Schell admitted he had trusted Harrington too much and that the chief had not been honest with him, particularly on the overtime issues.
“Of course, while trust is necessary and micromanaging is never recommended, it is my opinion that necessary management oversight by the Mayor was lacking here,” she said. “It is frankly surprising that City did not address the significant financial resources that were being expended by the department.”
Schell released a statement to MTN, in response to the allegations outlined in the report:
“I take these very important outside investigations extremely seriously, as I know the City Council and residents do,” he said. “I also take full responsibility for any shortcomings in my leadership that led us to this point and will concentrate my efforts on working with the staff and Council to review and implement the recommendations of those investigations into the City’s policies and procedures moving forward in an honest and transparent fashion.”
“As is the city staff and City Council, I am committed to building on the existing Police Department members and providing the community with an ethical, well respected East Helena Police Department,” Schell added.
Crosby made several recommendations in her report. She said the city should reexamine its current police staffing policies, since the relatively low number of calls means only a single officer may be needed on some shifts. She said the EHPD policies and procedures are in “desperate need of updating and organization,” and that officers need more opportunities to get appropriate training.
Crosby also encouraged the city to either hire an interim police chief or work out an agreement with the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office to provide temporary oversight. She said the department needs time and a well-thought-out plan in order to stabilize.
Earlier this year, the city of East Helena also requested that the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation conduct a criminal investigation into the sexual assault accusation against Harrington. A spokesperson for DOJ confirmed that investigation has not been completed yet.
Last month, Harrington was arrested on a federal charge of distributing child pornography – a case that appears to be unrelated to the earlier allegations. That case is also still ongoing.